Tonie Marshall: France’s female warrior

Director who took on sexism in Woman Up! dies at 68

by Richard Mowe

Director Tonie Marshall, left, on the set of her last film Woman Up! with actress Emmanuelle Devos
Director Tonie Marshall, left, on the set of her last film Woman Up! with actress Emmanuelle Devos Photo: Unifrance
Filmmaker Tonie Marshall has died in Paris at the age of 68 after a long illness. The daughter of French star Micheline Presle and of the American actor, director and producer William Marshall, Tonie was the only woman to win a best director César in the French “Oscars".

She was a significant feminist spirit in the industry, whose most recent film - released in the UK and the United States as Woman Up! (Numéro Une) - pitched Emmanuelle Devos as an ambitious corporate manager who aspires to be the first woman managing director of a major French company in a male dominated environment.

In an interview during the Unifrance Rendezvous with French Cinema in Paris three years ago, she explained the genesis the film: “I had this idea back in 2009 for a series about a network of influential women, Le Club, following eight characters working in industry, politics, media, sport and their ambitions and confrontations with men. Not a single TV channel showed any interest. So I put it on the back burner but kept thinking about it. But then I came back to it.

“I think it’s an interesting time for women. In many ways we’re progressing – there’s greater parity in politics – and in many others our society is regressing. There is this insidious mixture of morality, religion and gender ‘reassignation’ that is trying to put women back in their place. And where is their place? At home looking after children and keeping quiet. It’s something that doesn’t sit well with me. I think we need a lot more women to be in positions of power, as leaders. So I picked up the idea again and decided to turn it into a film, reduce the number of characters and focus on just one woman, Emmanuelle Blachey [played by Devos] working in industry, and build a story around her.”

Tonie Marshall behind the camera
Tonie Marshall behind the camera Photo: Unifrance
Marshall began her cinematic career as an actress in Jacques Demy’s A Slightly Pregnant Man (L’Evénement le plus important depuis que l’homie a marché sur la lune) alongside Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni, dealing with male-female roles and gender equality.

She transferred behind the camera as a director in 1989 with Pentimento with a youthful Antoine de Caunes, the first of a dozen features which included her best known work Venus Beauty (Institut) with Nathalie Baye and Audrey Tautou which won several César awards including best director, best film, best original screenplay and a best female newcomer nod for Audrey Tautou.

She was overjoyed, describing the success in 2000 as “a clean sweep to start the new millennium.” She was quoted as saying in an interview with French journalist Marion Sauvebois: “I got the jackpot. Success felt good considering so many people had spat on this film for so long. You think: ‘I wasn’t crazy, there was something there.’ Sometimes when I try to make a film and things get tough, I tell myself: ‘Remember you aren’t mad. Maybe people will see something in it too.’ Or maybe they won’t. It’s a lottery. But being the only woman to get Best Director can be embarrassing when you think of the talent out there.”

Other prominent titles from her filmography include The Nearest to Heaven (Au plus près du Paradis) with Catherine Deneuve, Patrice Chereau and William Hurt and France Boutique starring Karin Viard and François Cluzet as a couple who specialise in making home-shopping programmes

One of her best friends from childhood was the late actress Anémone with whom she worked on Pas très Catholique, a touching portrait of a strong woman.

Marshall conceded that she had a greater empathy with women collaborators but claims she did not set out to forge a female agenda. She explained on one occasion: “It was more about inventing original characters and often a world of fantasy.”

She wore her feminist credentials on her sleeve - displaying the white ribbon at the César ceremony in 2018 in support of the Fondation des femmes, an organisation in opposition to violence towards women and the French equivalent of the #MeToo movement. She was also vocal in support of actress Adèle Haenel in her accusation of sexual impropriety by director Christophe Ruggia (who was charged by French police in January with sexual assault of a minor - accusations he has denied). Marshall was also a member of the pro-women-in-film group Collectif 50 50.

She was a frequent ambassador for French cinema in Festivals. During one panel on Women, Work and the Will to Lead, she said: "I've always felt the solidarity between women. I trust them. If 50% of high-level positions were held by women, and I'm not only talking about in the world of film, everything could be made to change.”

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